Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Another "carmageddon" that wasn't

Following a fire that collapsed part of the busy I-85 freeway in Atlanta, it was feared that the loss of a key traffic linkage would cause havoc in the already-congested city for months while the freeway was repaired. But that didn't happen, because people adjusted their driving habits accordingly once they were aware that the section of freeway was out of service:
So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.
I've pointed this out before, but it bears repeating: motorists are not water molecules. Shutting down a freeway is not the same as closing a valve on a pipe and causing water to back up. Motorists make choices as to where to drive or to drive at all, and if they aware of a major closure, they will choose alternate routes to get to their destination or decide not to make the trip at all.

It's also why widening or expanding highways does nothing, in the long term, to solve traffic congestion.

The not-so-friendly skies

I'm just as disgusted as everyone else about the story of the passenger who was bloodied and dragged off an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville because he refused to give up his seat to make room for crewmembers that needed to be ferried to Louisville.

I understand the concept behind overbooking. And I understand that, legally, United Airlines (or in this case, their subsidiary, Republic Airlines) had every right to force the guy off their plane.

But there's the legal world, and then there's the world of common human decency. What kind of world do we live in when something this grotesque is allowed to happen?
“Once you’re offloading passengers who’ve already boarded so that you can get employees on the flight, you’d think they’d do just about anything to avoid that,” said Seth Kaplan, editor of the Airline Weekly trade publication. 
Others echoed the sentiment that United probably could’ve handled the situation better. 
“I’ve seen a lot in my 40 years covering and working for the airline industry, but this is historically bad public relations,” says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. “The burning question is why did they wait until everyone was seated before realizing they needed to move employees?”
Yep. This should have been handled before the guy was allowed to board the plane. The euphemism the airline industry uses for cases like these, when overbooking requires a passenger to be bumped off a flight, is "involuntarily denied boarding." But the passenger wasn't denied boarding. He was allowed on the plane, presumably because he had a boarding pass with a seat number on it, and he was sitting in his seat when the flight attendants and gate agents selected him for removal.

The passenger, a doctor (whose background is utterly irrelevant to the incident at hand) who claimed he had patients to see in Louisville the following day, refused to get off the plane after he was (apparently randomly) selected for removal, which is when things escalated. Vox's Alex Abad-Santos wonders about the thought process behind the brutal forced removal: what United staff member(s) actually thought this was a good idea?
But the complaint here is that it seems like there are missing steps between asking a man to leave an overbooked flight because he’s been bumped and, if he refuses, knocking that man to the ground and dragging him off the plane, busting his lip in the process.

If every airline deals with denied involuntary boardings — some 8,955 occurred between October and December 2016, according to the DOT report — why did this one result in someone literally being dragged into the aisle? Is that a reflection of United’s policy? And is United’s valuing its policy over its customers indicative of a bigger problem in the industry?

It’s hard to imagine another industry getting away with rescinding services that have already been paid for.

“How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?” Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.
Put another way, people are outraged at the way United treated this person, because they are frustrated by the way the domestic airline industry treats their customers as a whole. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson notes, this is a symptom of a larger problem in the airline industry:
But although this incident was unusual in many respects, it was also representative of an airline industry that has considerable power over consumers—even if the use of force is more subtle than a group of security professionals wrestling a passenger to the floor. 
For example, many people have pointed out that United might have avoided the entire fiasco by simply offering the passengers more money to leave the plane. By law, compensation for passengers is capped at $1,350, which means that United technically could have raised its offer by more than 50 percent before removing people against their will. But it’s absurd that airlines’ capacity to compensate passengers is bounded by the law in the first place. Indeed, there’s a good case to remove the cap entirely. If airlines are legally permitted to overbook—that is, to sell consumers a service that they will not fulfill—they ought to pay market price to compensate people for the unfulfilled promise. 
Domestic airlines are now enjoying record profits, having flown more passengers each year since 2010. This is in part because the airline industry is sheltered from both antitrust regulation and litigation. Four carriers—United, Delta, American, and Southwest—earn more than $20 billion in profits annually and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights. Along with cable companies, airlines are the top-of-mind paragon for industries that seem to get worse for consumers as they become more heavily concentrated. Indeed, when fuel prices fell last year, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker (who edited this story and who has a relative who works at United) has written, airlines spent the savings on stock buybacks rather than pass them to consumers.

Meanwhile, if customers are shocked by the fine print of United’s contract of carriage, what recourse do they have against the company? Very little. In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal. 
In this way, the United video serves as a stark metaphor, one where the quiet brutalization of consumers is rendered in shocking, literal form. The first thought that I had watching the outrageous footage of a passenger being dragged through an aisle like a bag of trash was that this should never happen. But fundamentally, this is an old story: Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts. The video is a scandal. But so is the law.
A depressing situation, indeed, and one that makes me never want to fly United again (even though I probably will, by virtue of the fact that Houston is one of their fortress hubs and I also still have a significant amount of frequent flyer miles with them that I need to use). But there are some silver linings to this otherwise gruesome incident:

United's stock is taking a beating. The company's tone-deaf CEO was forced to issue a second, more contrite apology today because the statement he issued about the incident yesterday went over like a lead balloon. The Chicago police officer involved in the brutal removal has reportedly been suspended. Late night hosts and other airlines are taking their shots at United. Today the internet was flooded with hilarious and savage memes at the airline's expense. And, most importantly, the outrage being generated by this incident indicates that, even in our hyper-corpratized world, there are still things that companies cannot do to their customers without sparking furious outrage and backlash.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crawfish season

Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax explores Houston's love affair with the succulent crustacean; notably, the fact that the love affair is relatively recent:
It wasn’t always this way in Houston. As recently as the 1980s, crawfish were still seen as impossibly exotic. “You want me to suck the what?” was often heard.  
Jim Gossen remembers those days, and as chairman of Louisiana Sysco Seafood, he’s been an integral part in bringing about the cultural shift. Despite selling the company to Sysco a few years ago, the Lafayette native still runs the company he founded in 1972. Gossen moved to Houston in 1975, because, as he says, that was “where the market was.” Houston didn’t know it then, but Gossen, through his involvement in pioneering Cajun-style restaurants such as Don’s, Willie G’s, and the Magnolia Bar & Grill and events like the Spring Crawfish Festival, has changed the way Houstonians (and by extension, all Texans) eat forever. 
Gossen now believes that more crawfish are consumed in Greater Houston than in the entire state of Louisiana, and for that, he is the one man most responsible. Yes, he had his contemporaries out there in the 1970s spreading the Mudbug Gospel: Ray Hay’s (today’s Ragin’ Cajun) and the tragically closed NASA-area Cajun stronghold Pe-Te’s among them, both of which catered to homesick Cajuns in Houston for oil patch jobs.  
The first wave of zydeco’s popularity also brought crawfish into Houston’s culinary scene. Ken Watkins recalls eating crawfish at African-American Catholic parish hall gigs by zydeco titan Clifton Chenier in the 1970s, where “everybody was having a party.” (As many a zydeco performer has said from the bandstand over the years, Louisiana is the place where “even the crawfish have soul.”) 
Even given all that, when Gossen helped open Don’s, he could hardly give the critters away. 
“When I opened up Don’s in 1976 I couldn’t sell three sacks a week,” he says from his car, en route to another dining adventure in the bayous of Louisiana, where he still owns two homes. “What I would do is boil them, and whatever I had left over on Sunday, I would put on a plate as a garnish, just so people could see what they looked like.” 
Crustacean parsley? Huh. 
Needless to say, Houston's come a long way from those days, thanks at least partly to Gossen's efforts. The popularity of crawfish grew throughout the 80s and 90s; more recently, the post-Katrina influx of Louisianans to Houston has swelled the ranks of the city's mudbug aficionados. The inception of commercial farming of crawfish by rice growers in Louisiana and eastern Texas, who realized they could raise them in their flooded fields, also helped by improving the crustacean's quality and availability. 

As the popularity of boiled crawfish grew, distinctive cooking styles developed:
Houston crawfish are prepared in variations on three main styles: purist Cajun (spices in the boil), Texan (spices on the shells), and Vietnamese. Some of Gossen’s earliest customers at the Magnolia were large parties of Vietnamese immigrants.  Since then, Vietnamese Houstonians have made Houston into a year-round crawfish city, thanks to their importation of Asian crustaceans that never go out of season. They also have their own way of preparing them: adding ginger and lemongrass to the traditional seasonings, fruits and spices of mustard seed, lemon, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. Viet-Houston crawfish also come with spicy butter-garlic sauces. With its roots in both regional bayous and distant (though equally sultry) Vietnam, some Bayou City foodies have declared this dish Houston’s signature fare. 
You also have Vietnamese American cooks who make them Cajun-style. One such is Khon Lu, owner of Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art in Midtown Houston, Lu hosts crawfish boils at his establishment when the mood strikes him. “I make mine Cajun style, with fresh and dry ingredients,” Lu said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to crawfish. The only thing that should be on your fingers are the cayenne peppers and spices. The boil should be clean and devoid of oils and butter. The Vietnam style is basically stir fried in butter after they’re dunked.”
I usually go to Khon's at least a couple of times every season for his crawfish; they are so good that even my New Orleanian girlfriend looks forward to his boils. Here's what a plate of his crawfish looked like last Sunday:


To be sure, not everybody in Houston is a fan of crawfish. A fairly common remark is that peeling and eating them "takes too much work" relative to the amount of meat you get from them. They can get messy, and some people can't handle the spiciness with which they are traditionally cooked. 

True, there is work involved in getting to the meat in the tail (and, if they are large enough, the claws); crawfish is an activity as much as it is a food. But - aside from the fact that if the meat is good, then the work is worth it! - that very activity is why a typical crawfish boil is just as much of a social event as it is dinner. People gather over large communal plates or newspaper spreads of freshly-boiled crawfish to talk and laugh as they peel tails, crack claws, sip beer and consume entire rolls of paper towels in a futile effort to keep their hands clean. This social feature might be just as responsible for crawfish's popularity as the tender and flavorful meat itself.

Houstonia dedicated much of March's issue to crawfish, including their list of the best places to get traditional Cajun and Vietnamese crawfish in Houston, the best local beers to pair with crawfish, and some suggestions for your next boil.

Crawfish season traditionally lasts into the summer, but March and April are generally the best months for quality. So get 'em while there's still time. Bon app├ętit!

Wichita State to join the AAC?

This had been rumored for several weeks, and it now looks like it's going to happen:
The American Athletic Conference is engaged in talks to add Wichita State, according to multiple sources. The conversations have advanced to where a timeline for potential membership has emerged, including the possibility of Wichita State playing in the AAC as soon as next season. 
There’s strong mutual interest between both sides, and sources said that a final decision could be made within the next month or in as few as the next two weeks. Any decision would need to be approved by the American Athletic Conference’s presidents, but the mutual interest is strong enough where neither side sees any looming issues.  
The biggest lingering detail remains when Wichita State would leave the Missouri Valley Conference to begin play in the AAC. Sources said there’s a strong chance that the Shockers could play in the AAC in the 2017-18 season, as both sides would prefer Wichita State avoiding playing a lame duck year in the Missouri Valley Conference. 
Valley officials are prepared for the move, as one told Sports Illustrated on Thursday night: “We understand that this is in the works and that it’s a strong possibility.”
The MVC is certainly not keen to lose their best basketball program (the Shockers would have gone to or even past the Sweet Sixteen this year if the hadn't been mis-seeded and forced to play Kentucky so early in the tournament), but this is a great pickup for the American.

Not only does Wichita State have a good basketball program, but the AAC could use a 12th school for basketball (Navy is a football-only member). Adding Wichita State will allow the conference to split into two logical geographic divisions (west and east) for basketball. Wichita State also has a good baseball program. Wichita State is an urban public school, like many current AAC members (Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple, etc.), and is close enough to at least one current AAC school (Tulsa) so as not to be a geographic outlier. (Wichita State dropped football in 1986; there's been some talk about resurrecting the program but that doesn't seem imminent.)

As the article notes, the Shockers' move from the MVC (where they've played since 1945) is not yet official; however, mutual interest is strong and WSU is a good fit, so I expect that this will happen soon.

Wichita State and Houston have history; Houston was a member of the MVC in the 1950s. The Cougars are 9-16 all-time against the Shockers in mens basketball.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, but it wasn't the "first day of spring"

I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. The equinoxes and solstices that supposedly mark "the first day" of a given season are astronomical events which have little to do with meteorological conditions on the ground. Real meteorologists agree with me:
Meteorologists group seasons into months: March 1-May 31 for spring, June 1-August 31 for summer, September 1-November 30 for fall, and December 1-February 28 for winter. These groups make it simpler for meteorologists to describe the seasons. Not only are they easier to remember, they also correlate with temperatures for the seasons. The coldest months of the year in the northern hemisphere are typically December, January and February. The warmest months, on the other hand, are June, July and August. The graph below shows a comparison of the seasons, along with average temperatures during each season.
                                                                       source: NWS Kansas City
Spring in Houston started weeks ago - other than that one deep freeze in January, we really didn't even have a winter - and I can assure you that Houston's hellish summer will begin well before the summer solstice occurs in late June.

So please, folks, quit saying that the equinoxes or solstices mark "the first day" of a given season. Because  - unless you're an astronomer - they don't.

Swamplot finally discovered Denton's "Little Houston" neighborhood

Took 'em long enough.
THE FASTEST way to Westheimer Rd., if you happen to be wandering north looking for it in the 76210 ZIP code, is a left off of Heights Blvd. and an immediate right off Gessner Dr. Lauren Meyers captured some scenes this weekend around the Summit Oaks subdivision on the south side of Denton, TX, which has a whole section of streets sharing names with major Houston roadway (with a few bizarro-world tweaks here and there, like Chimney Rock Dr. and an only-1-L Hilcroft Ave.)
The Summit Oaks (as opposed, perhaps, to the Compaq Center Oaks or Lakewood Church Oaks?) subdivision off of FM 2181/Teasley Road in south Denton (outlined in red in the Google Earth screenshot below) was platted in the late 1990s. All of its streets have Houston street names, even if some of them were misspelled. Needless to say, as a native Houstonian I thought it was rather humorous.

The Swamplot article intimates that the street names may have been inspired by the presence of a Houston Street in Denton State School, immediately to the subdivision's east. If I recall correctly however, the reason for the street names as much simpler: the developer was based in Houston and needed some street names that weren't already taken by other subdivisions in the rapidly-growing city. 

I was not the case manager for this particular development, although I do recall an attempt to convince the Summit Oaks developer and the developer of the subdivision directly to the north to create a roadway or pedestrian connection between Weslayan and Hollow Ridge, so that people (especially children) could get between the two neighborhoods without having to go all the way out on Teasley. They declined to make the connection because it wasn't required at the time; Denton's development code would later be updated to require such connectivity. 

                                                                                                                                                          Google Earth


Fifteen years after I left the City of Denton, I'm still chuckling at the above screenshot. Not because of the names of the streets in Summit Oaks, but rather because of the property below it, at the southwest corner of Teasley and Ryan Road, circled in light blue.

Not long after I was hired at the City of Denton, I was assigned a case regarding a piece of property at the corner of Teasley and Lillian Miller, just to the north of the area shown on the above map. A developer wanted to put a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market grocery store on that property. The councilmember for that part of Denton at the time (who was the socialite housewife of a local physican) was outraged. She did not want a Wal-Mart anything in the upscale neighborhoods she represented, so she rallied up her (equally elitist) constituents in opposition. People showed up to public meetings and P&Z meetings en masse, their NIMBY-fueled anger directed at staffers such as myself (even though we had no control over the brand of the store to be located there) just as much as at the developer. Faced with such tremendous opposition, the developer backed down and the property eventually became a CVS pharmacy.

A short time later, another developer approached the city about placing a Tom Thumb (the Dallas-Fort Worth equivalent of Randalls) on the piece of property circled in the map above. The same councilmember who was livid about the Wal-Mart proposal was ecstatic about this one, and helped to push the rezoning and platting of the property through the city's review and approval process (I was, once again, case manager) in hopes of bringing the high-end grocer to her area. It was only after the zoning and platting was completed that the developer discovered that, thanks to the city's byzantine liquor laws, beer and wine would not be permitted to be sold on that site. Tom Thumb backed out. (See my post about this from many years ago for more explanation.)

The land sat vacant, the councilmember got voted off council, I left the City of Denton, and a few years later local voters regularized Denton's liquor laws. The grocery store originally planned for the property was finally developed, as the photo above indicates.

But it isn't a Tom Thumb. It's...

Yeah, you guessed it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Eshima Ohashi Bridge

Although it’s a clickbait staple, i.e. “THE TERRIFYING JAPANESE BRIDGE YOU DON’T WANT TO CROSS!” - the Eshima Ohashi Bridge in Japan is not quite as terrifying as it looks. Most of the “terrifying” pictures of the bridge are taken from a distance using telephoto lenses that, due to perspective compression, tend to eggagerate its height and slope. The bridge's actual grades are 6.1% on one side and 5.1% on the other - you'll encounter steeper grades on mountain highways.

That being said, you're never going to get me to ride a bicycle up and down the damn thing, especially since there is not a protected bike lane on the bridge and so heavy trucks pass within a few feet of you. 

Society's bigotry against night owls

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but here's another excellent article on what it's like to live with Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder and, in the process, endure society's bias against night owls:
Both environmental and genetic factors have been linked to these offset circadian rhythms, so people with delayed sleep can’t fully control when their bodies get tired, or when they’re ready to get up.  
This doesn’t stop articles, schedules, or well-intentioned friends from insisting we’d be better off if we just made ourselves go to bed “at a normal time.” 
Night owls remain a misunderstood, maligned minority. We defy the conventional wisdom, missing out on the proverbial worm and whatever instincts make early risers “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Researchers estimate that about one in 10 adolescents go through a period of delayed sleep, but just a fraction of 1 percent still have the condition into adulthood. 
Because so many teens and college kids naturally stay up late and sleep in longer, people associate that pattern with immaturity and childishness. Staying up until the wee hours is something you’re expected to grow out of; adulting means you embrace your 6 am wakeup with joy. (For bonus grown-up points, you complain that you can’t make it to midnight, even on New Year’s Eve.) 
Those of us still hours from our alarms when others have completed their morning routines know we’re getting the figurative side-eye for staying in bed. I sense a bit of rise-and-shine smugness from the friend who posts a list of the things she got done before 9 am or even the countless articles on how to become a morning person. We’re all expected to conform to the early bird schedule; Real Simple and Women’s Health aren’t doling out tips on how to stay up later.
Society's bias towards early risers - and the pressure it puts on night owls to conform to a "normal" schedule even though they might not be biologically predispositioned to do so - is, quite frankly, a form of bigotry. I'd like to believe that we night owls are finally beginning to find our voices - after all, science seems to have our backs - but the false perception that late risers are lazier or less effective than early birds will require continual challenge.
For all the knocks against night owls, we remain regarded as more creative, impulsive, and strategic thinkers. There’s something to the caricature of the artist, inventor, or writer staying up chasing their ideas. Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated documentary director, said working late is part of his process: “I’m a night owl, and luckily my profession supports that. The best ideas come to me in the dead of night. My friends know I’m up, so they can call at three in the morning. Just don’t call me at, like, 8.” 
I get it. I feel most clear-headed, productive, and energized in the evenings, free to work as long as I’d like. If you’ve ever gone to work in an empty office — on a weekend or holiday or a day when everybody else was on vacation — that’s what working after midnight feels like. There are no meetings, no places to be, no disruptions. It’s eerily quiet, just you and your thoughts. 
The more we give night people the freedom to lean into their after-dark rhythms, I believe the more we’ll continue to see the benefits of flexible schedules, as employee satisfaction and efficiency thrive.
I don't know if I have DSPD, but I have always been a night owl. Right now it's well after 11 pm, and after I finish this blog entry I have a few other tasks to do before I finally crawl into bed. This is how it is for me virtually every night: I feel especially energetic and productive during these late hours. I'm not the least bit sleepy, and if I tried to go to bed right now I'd simply toss and turn and stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours. This is who I am, this is how I live, and at 43 years of age I'm not going to change.

Early birds are free to rise at 5:30 am; they are even allowed to feel superior for doing so. But they're not allowed to think of us night owls as a lazy degenerates simply because we don't conform to their schedules.

17 Reasons Why You Should Not Attend the University of Houston

I'm usually not a fan of clickbait listicles such as these, but this one made me smile.

Especially #9. Go Coogs!

(One quibble about #14, though: I'm not sure I'd call the squirrels on the University of Houston campus "friendly." "Aggressive," "fearless," and "demanding" are better terms...)

Monday, February 27, 2017